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Big, happy family 

by Marty Demarest

Every century since the Renaissance has had one or two art forms that have come to represent that period in history. Audiences have devoted time and money to the enjoyment of those art forms, and a variety of artists explored the mediums as vehicles for contemporary themes. In the 20th century, film certainly became the focus of incredible artistic thought. And it makes sense: One of the dominant art forms in the 19th century worked hard at laying the groundwork for motion pictures. Opera, particularly in the 19th century, attempted to unite storytelling, visual spectacle, sound and music into a unified work of art -- one that appealed to both connoisseurs and the general public.

In the midst of the great opera era of the 1800s, composers were expected to create grand works of music, theater and dance the way that filmmakers today are expected to make movies: quickly and with simultaneous goals of profit and artistic quality. Some composers like Wagner became so enamored of the artistic elements of the medium that commercial success came much too late, while others, like the Italian Gaetano Donizetti, worked with great facility, and happily pleased audiences along the way. While Donizetti suffered the usual attacks of censorship and kamikaze artistic egos common in the world of opera during his lifetime, he also saw an almost unprecedented string of successes that have held the attention of audiences into the 21st century.

On Tuesday at The Met, Spokane Opera will present his later comic masterpiece, The Daughter of the Regiment as the highlight of its 16th season.

The opera, which tells the story of the young girl Marie, who has been raised by the soldiers of the 21st Regiment of the French army, will feature the return to Spokane of soprano Heather Steckler-Parker. Having made her first opera appearances with Spokane Opera before moving to New York to pursue a career in music, Steckler-Parker is delighted to be given the opportunity to perform the lead role in a major musical work.

"In New York right now, I have friends from school who are wonderful singers," Steckler-Parker points out, "and yet they don't have an outlet to perform. So I feel very blessed to be able to perform here, especially a role like Marie, which is a very big, very challenging role."

The difficulties of the role, aside from having to play a daughter with dozens of father figures, come in large part from the length of time Donizetti has asked his star soprano to stay on stage and sing. "It's been the most challenging role that I've ever done, and it's especially tricky because Marie is a young girl, abandoned as a baby and adopted by the entire 21st Regiment of the French army, and she thinks of them all as her father. And she has to make all of this look easy and natural while singing these high notes. And she never stops singing, or shuts up, which makes this role very difficult to sing. It requires a lot of stamina. While at the same time, for the audience, the story is light and funny, and the music is so beautiful."

Steckler-Parker will be joined on stage by soprano Susan Windham, who was an immediate choice by Spokane Opera's Artistic Director Marjory Halvorson when The Daughter of the Regiment was selected.

"Susan is going to be so funny," Halvorson says, referring to Windham's role as the young Marie's foil. "She is a magnificent actress, and the role that she's playing is sometimes sung with a lower voice. So, since Susan is such a glorious soprano, we've interpolated some notes and cadenzas for her."

Before opera purists object too strongly, it should be remembered that Donizetti himself was quick to make changes to his works, in order to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves in the creative process. And while the era has changed, the goal of opera is still to enchant an audience with almost universal artistic themes and experiences.

Spokane Opera presents The Daughter of the Regiment in English at The Met, 901 W. Sprague, on May 29-30 at 7:30 pm and June 1-2 at 8 pm. Tickets: $15-$35. Call: 325-SEAT.

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